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Will Ugandan rhinos ever get the protection they deserve?

What started as a model project to reintroduce endangered rhinos in Uganda has spiraled into a power struggle that has sucked in major stakeholders in the tourism industry. 

At the centre of it are about 25 endangered rhinos at Ziwa rhino sanctuary whose handlers, the Rhino Fund of Uganda (RFU), are battling with Capt Charles Roy, landowner of the more than 16,000-hectare rhino sanctuary.


As ERNEST JJINGO chronicles the saga, mistrust from both parties has brought the once-thriving project into disrepute with accusations of greed and poor accountability at the fore.  

For years, tourism has been one of the biggest earners for Nakasongola district. This is mostly due to the presence of the Ziwa rhino sanctuary, which attracts tourists from all over the world to see rare endangered rhinos. The sanctuary has transformed communities around it, with people tapping into the presence of tourists to sell handicrafts.

For more than 15 years when it became operational, the place has been thriving. However, in 2017, what started like a simple misunderstanding escalated into a full-blown battle that has sucked in district local leaders and even went up to President Museveni to mediate albeit with little success.

At the moment, the dispute reached a dead end, prompting the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to step in to protect the rhinos by taking over the management of the sanctuary.

The Observer has obtained a detailed trove of documents from UWA, which regards itself as a neutral party in the conflict, detailing correspondences from the disputing parties that throw light into the gist of the fight.

The concept to reintroduce rhinos in Uganda started in the mid-90s but it took until 2005 for the project to take off. Rhinos had become extinct in the country and a team of environmentalists and conservationists such as Dr Eve Abe, Tom Buringuriza, Kenneth Bataringaya, Dr Gladys Kalema, David Abura and Jane Adong Anywar teamed up to form the Rhino Fund Uganda, an NGO to oversee the return of the rhinos and their protection.

Capt Charles Roy offered part of his 16,000 hectares for the sanctuary. All seemed to go according to plan and the initial crash of six rhinos got from Kenya and USA multiplied.   

The plan was to keep the rhinos at the sanctuary for 18 years before releasing them to the wild but given their slow rate of breeding, the team considered to extend the project to 30 years.

Genade family arrives

In 2010, Roy hired Johan Genade, a former soldier in South Africa, to run the ranch and its security as executive director of RFU. Johan, according to records, convinced Roy to start a lodging facility at the site in order to boost tourism in the sanctuary.

That is how Amuka lodge came to be constructed to host the tourists in 2011. Their agreement stipulated that 10 per cent of the gross income from accommodation would go to Roy while another 10 per cent of the net income from food sold would go directly to funding the rhino project.

Capt Charles Roy (L) at the sanctuary

All seemed to go well until 2016 when Johan succumbed to cancer. His wife, Angie Genade, then took charge of running the lodge as executive director.

Start of conflict

By 2012, Roy had relocated most of his aviation businesses to DR Congo but when he returned in 2017, a conflict ensued when he found out he was no longer a board member of RFU.

Angie reasoned that his abscondment from board duties for five years without prior reasons was a legal ground to relieve him of board duties.

Roy didn’t take of that and started to demand payments from the agreement with the late Johan, setting a protracted battle with Angie.

According to the correspondences, Roy accused Angie of trying to change the terms of the leases for Amuka lodge while at the same time applied for ownership of the 16,000 hectares.

Angie denied this in her letter and also refused to pay any money to Roy on grounds the lodge was not fully operational. At this point, Roy informed RFU that he had his own ambitions for the land with a license from UWA to privately bring animals to the land.

First truce fails

In trying to resolve the issue that was becoming contentious, records show Angie drafted a 30-year lease that would guarantee Roy earnings of $150,000 per year and expressed the intention of bringing in more animals, especially from the endangered species category, to the sanctuary.

However, Roy scoffed at the deal and in turn issued a two-year termination notice to RFU to vacate his land. It was at this point that the Nakasongola LC-V chairman Sam Kigula and Dan Muganga, the Nakasongola RDC, joined the fray.

They accused Roy of interfering with a thriving project that was economically empowering communities around it. In a dossier authored by Kigula and Muganga that was addressed to President Museveni, they noted that the country stands to lose more than 20,000 tourists who visit the sanctuary every year. They went on to blame UWA of siding with Roy to take away the rhinos.

Meanwhile, Roy decided to counter the narrative by meeting the locals, whom he told that the contentious issue is about land violations. He also assured them that the rhinos would not be going anywhere “since they don’t belong to RFU but to the Ugandan government.”

He further expressed willingness to work with UWA and set up a private game land. “Since the work with the reintroduction of rhinos is done, they [RFU] should be able to leave,” the document quotes him saying so.

MUSEVENI STEPS IN

By now, it was clear the conflict was spiraling out of control. In 2019, President Museveni met the two parties to get to the bottom of the matter. In the meeting, Angie and RFU blamed Roy and his family of disrupting the project due to greed.

On the other hand, Roy told the president that the problem stems from RFU’s interest to take over Roy’s land. “They tried to coerce me to accept a $2m offer for my land but I refused,” Roy said.

The parties managed to agree before the president to create a new working arrangement where the composition of a nine-member RFU board would have three people from Roy’s side and four from RFU, one each from UWA and the ministry of Tourism.

“The board will serve for a period of five years to allow for a smooth transition,” notes the draft memorandum of understanding.

The process dragged on for another year but signing eventually took place in 2020 under the initial terms agreed with the president.

Trouble at implementing

However, the real battle had just begun. Shortly after the signing, Roy demanded to gain access to all areas of the sanctuary to ascertain the levels of development. In a letter to RFU, he reasoned that since its management had told President Museveni that Uganda risks losing 20,000 tourists annually due to the conflict, the sanctuary was making a lot of money because it charges $50 per head.

“I know you have a number of activities for tourists that generate even more money; so, it is estimated that you make $3m annually,” he notes in one of the letters.

However, RFU management quickly obtained a court injunction barring him until arbitration is settled. RFU also reasoned that the sanctuary was not a profit-making body and spends most of the earning on corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities to empower the communities through provision of education services and healthcare.

So, when it came to the clause or revenue sharing between RFU and Roy, RFU noted that most of the earning goes to expenses. However, it offered $150,000 to Roy as lease fees annually. According to documents, both sides seemed to edge closer to unity in early 2020 when Roy agreed to get 20 percent of earning from ranch activities, exclusive of donations.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown put the deal in jeopardy and RFU backed out of it. At this point, Roy implored the ministry of Tourism to intervene but before it could act, RFU returned to the negotiating table with new amendment, with Roy to share proceeds with a private company called RFU Uganda Limited.

The amended MOU had RFU Ltd take up the positions of chairperson, treasurer and secretary while Roy’s Ziwa Ranchers Limited would have three members and the vice chairperson.

Incensed, Roy notified the permanent secretary in the ministry that he had given RFU “one month to evacuate the sanctuary with all their animals.”

Camping tents at Ziwa sanctuary

What followed in early 2021 were bloody conflicts as groups supporting each side took turns to take over the sanctuary. Matters reached a head when a fight between the groups led to the arrest of dozens by police, whom Roy accused of inciting the violence.

On January 21, 2021, the permanent secretary in the ministry of Tourism, had had enough. She wrote to RFU threatening to revoke their license since they had no land to take care of the animals.

A new set of mediations ensued to try save the situation. Roy set conditions that RFU presents audited books of accounts for the past five years. He even demanded that Angie shouldn’t be involved in any future negotiations. However, this was shot down by RFU but it was agreed that RFU management relocates its headquarters to Jinja as mediations continue.

Roy further demanded a joint venture agreement involving the ministry and UWA to oversee its implementation. After three months of dragging the meetings out, on April15, Roy and his team decided enough is enough and told RFU to leave the sanctuary.

In the letter, he reasons that RFU wanted to force him join its board but on grounds that he signs a confidentiality clause not to reveal sensitive documents.

Roy’s men went on to lock RFU offices and everything that was still functioning at the sanctuary. The following day, ministry of Tourism, through UWA, announced the takeover of the security of the rhinos, thereby pushing RFU out of the ranch.

Way forward

At the moment, both sides are still engaging in negotiations but the sanctuary is closed from tourists and Roy is pushing to enter an MOU with government, a letter to the permanent secretary reveals so.

“Government should take charge of the rhinos and their security while we deal with the ranch and tourism end,” reads part of it. “Meanwhile, we are going to sue Amuka lodge for all the money they have defaulted.”

It remains to be seen what Angie and RFU will do next but the exhausting battle for supremacy has already had its first casualty, the tourists. Hopefully, both sides will reach an understanding and help the country thrive as a tourist destination for the rare endangered rhinos.

About Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is a collaborative effort between the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Rhino Fund Uganda, a Ugandan NGO committed to the restoration of Uganda’s rhinoceros population and Ziwa Ranchers Limited, a private land management company.

The sanctuary offers a secure place where rhino populations can be expanded by breeding, protected from human and non-human predators and gradually re-introduced into Uganda’s national parks, while at the same time, allowing the public to enjoy these majestic animals, as the project moves forward.

A team of approximately 78 park rangers and security guards keep a 24-hour watch on the rhinos to ensure their safety. The 70 square kilometres (7,000 ha) sanctuary is surrounded by a 2 metres (6.6 ft) electric fence to keep the rhinos in and the intruders out. The sanctuary is home to at least 40 mammal and reptilian species including monkeys, antelopes, hippopotamuses, crocodiles and numerous bird species.

Tourist facilities at the sanctuary include a safari lodge, guest house, budget accommodation, and camp grounds. The accommodations are two separate businesses and both have restaurants that offer meals to tourists. In addition to on foot rhino trekking, tourist activities include birding, canoe rides and nature walks.

History

Both the Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis michaeli) and the Northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), are indigenous to Uganda. However, due to a number of factors, including prolonged armed human conflict, poaching and the mismanagement of their natural habitat, by 1982, both species had been wiped out in the country.

Ziwa Rhino sanctuary was established in 2005 to reintroduce the southern white rhinoceros to Uganda. The long-term goal of the sanctuary is to “build a sustainable rhinoceros population and relocate rhinos back to their original habitat in Uganda’s protected areas”.





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